It’s cool that It Follows is getting the hype it’s getting. A lot of it is overboard, of course, as tends to happen sometimes when one good review snowballs until such claims as “It Follows is the best American horror film in decades” become commonplace. I’m all for lionizing good indie flicks, but it’s also important to let the thing stand alone for a while too, right? Anyway, that said, yes: It Follows is damn fine cinema. Technically a 2014 release, the film is just now gaining traction through an extended cinematic run.
Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell has a premise that nearly defies explanation because of its simplicity: there is this thing, slow-moving but not dumb, and if it’s “passed” to you then it will follow you. It can look like anyone, even someone you know. If it catches you it will kill you. Respite only comes from passing it along to someone else, and even then you’re still only next in line. That’s simultaneously an awesome premise — elementally terrifying in how simple it is — and yet one that’s been done a thousand times before. “Slow-moving thing inexplicably stalks people” is a staple of the horror genre, from Halloween (which we’ll discuss in a moment) to Alien (which we’ll discuss in another moment). Most “horror” flicks nowadays are really just slasher flicks with that premise mixed in. Thankfully, though, even though the premise of It Follows has been done before, it’s never been done quite like this.
And that’s because the execution on all fronts results in a veritable masterclass in atmosphere. People love using the phrase “world-building” to describe a lot of different things in modern film, but it’s usually applied to striking visuals or, again, to the plot-supporting premise (see: Blade Runner, last year’s Automata, etc.); these are the things that set this film world apart from our real world, things that are so different that they’re instantly laudable for being so original. But world-building extends to the mood and atmosphere a film creates, too, and in the case of It Follows the curtain of dread draped over everything is tangible. Importantly, this isn’t world-building in the traditional sense because this is the real world, not a futuristic L.A. but just a suburb of Detroit, and that’s in turn what makes the meticulously-constructed atmosphere of It Follows so thoroughly terrifying. It hits close to home because it is home.
Mitchell comes across as a young master, not because he thought up an interesting premise but because he made that premise original through the incredible atmosphere of the film. The slow zooms and long tracking shots stretch the tension of every moment, helped along by a phenomenal score from Disasterpeace (real name Rich Vreeland). Most everyone jumps again to the John Carpenter comparison due to the ’80s overdrive synth, but Vreeland’s OST (emphasis on the O, for sure) is often more layered than anything in Halloween or The Thing. At times I thought of the better tracks on the Dust Brothers Fight Club soundtrack, but that’s nearly background music compared to the music of It Follows. The music of It Follows is forefront music, inescapable but able to creep up on you nonetheless. Check out some short tracks on the Disasterpeace site — especially the Carpenter-esque “Detroit” and “Playpen”, the multifaceted “Inquiry”, and the completely and unexpectedly beautiful “Jay” — but acknowledge that an individual track won’t do justice to Vreeland’s work here. It’s the atmosphere, again, that works so well within It Follows, and the score is a seamless part of that.
Great as it may be, it can’t just be the atmosphere that sets It Follows at the head of the class. There have been a few solid critical readings of the film since its release (my favorite of which might be Stand By for Mind Control’s coming-of-age fable), but at the same time a lot of reviews cite the “wait, this thing is just an STD!” qualm. Yes, the aforementioned “passing” of this thing that will kill you is achieved through intercourse, and because we’re dealing with teens here it’s safe enough to go one further and assume this is premarital sex (in an alternate universe, the thing from It Follows doesn’t kill you but just shakes its head in parental disappointment). This reading isn’t wrong, of course, but there’s so much more to it than that. Just as a statement about It Follows being the best horror movie ever can only force it to not live up to the hype, equating It with an STD just kind of deadens the scariness of the film.
Why? Because that’s something we can understand. Not long ago it was announced that Neill Blomkamp would be taking over the Alien franchise, and this article popped up on Flickering Myth. This, in a nutshell, is why the eponymous It is so damn scary. Like the xenomorphs from the original Alien, the motive of this shapeshifting thing isn’t clear. In lieu of any evidence to support a theory that It needs to catch prey in order to survive, we’re left with something much more horrifying: this thing just wants to follow, to hunt, to kill. It’s mechanical, playful, and like a xenomorph it’s disturbingly sexual. This is as much a thing driven by desire as by anything else. If it were following and killing to survive, at least that would be a process we could understand and categorize. But when we ask why does It look like Jay’s friend? or why does It look like a stranger? or why is It on the roof? or why can’t It swim?, the fact of the matter is that there is no answer. To quote Flickering Myth’s Matt Evans, that is “utterly, stupefyingly scary”.
One issue is with the portions of It Follows that stray from this. On the beach we discover that this thing is categorically not just a figment of Jay’s insane mind. It has a body able to be struck by a beach chair, and it’s able to lash out and injure people and break doors. Later, at the pool, the kids throw a towel over the thing’s head so that they can see it too. This is a necessary part of It Follows, but it definitely steers the film away from the personalized Tell-Tale Heart angle and makes It just a little more understandable. It, at best, is the unknowable.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t theorize about this stuff, of course. My esteemed co-viewer and I found it interesting that the thing seemed to oscillate between male and female with at least some degree of regularity. The male forms it inhabits (Giant Man, Beach Boy, Greg, Roof Man, Pool Man) come to five, while the females (Girl in Yellow Dress, First Naked Lady, Old Lady, Second Naked Lady, Yara, Beach Girl, Greg’s Mom) come to seven. But we see Greg twice and possibly see the Giant Man again at the beach, and we also never see what the girl from the beginning saw. Shifting gender is worth exploring because of the sexual nature of this thing, as are a great many other interpretations of why and how and what the f*ck. But ultimately it’s just more of the same: looking for answers, explanations, solutions to terrifying uncertainties.